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Jun-12-2007 13:58printcomments

Sixth Grade Astronauts Ready for Takeoff

At the completion of training, each crew "flies" a ten-hour mission in the school space station, Alpha-Z 2000, with no adults on board.

Kids in Camas dressed in astronaut suits
Photos courtesy: Doreen McKercher/Camas School District

(CAMAS, Wa.) - When the Camas School District space program was launched 18 years ago, the missions were conducted inside large plastic bags inflated by fans and the student astronauts wore ice cream buckets as space helmets.

But this month, students are blasting off into space from the Liberty Middle School launch pad, fully clad in authentic-looking space garb and using highly sophisticated equipment, to simulate the most elaborate space missions yet.

Skilled student astronauts and their teachers have spent the past few months researching, planning and preparing for a successful trip into space. During their flight, students studied hydroponics, experienced an intercultural activity, examined crystals they have grown, problem solved as a crew, operated a remote robotic Mars rover and performed an EVA where they "repaired" a satellite. In addition - just prior to arriving back on Earth - they had a video press conference with their families!

More than 1,000 students have participated in space missions at Liberty. "It seems wherever I go in town I'll see a former student who always asks the same question... 'Hey, do you guys still do the space program? That was the coolest thing I did in all my years in school!'" said teacher Jo Lynne Roberts.

The program began as an offshoot of the "Schools for the Twenty-First Century Grant" that the district received from the state legislature.

The grant was designed to help provide opportunities for students to strengthen math, science and technology skills and to engage students in a quality group process.

Out of an effort to integrate each of the goals of the grant, the space program was created. Roberts and the late Lynne Carroll built the foundation upon which the program has flourished for 18 years. "Probably what continues to drive the program is student enthusiasm," said Roberts.

"Kids take on a high level of responsibility and autonomy in this experience. You can witness many of the students maturing during the six weeks of preparation in our Astronaut Training Academy," she explained.

Training sessions focus on Newton's Laws, the layers of the spacesuit, the vacuum of space, learning about Mars, understanding crater formations and micro-gravity. Additionally each crew works on "Job Lists" requiring them to participate in a variety of activities to prepare for space flight.

At the completion of training, each crew "flies" a ten-hour mission in the school space station, Alpha-Z 2000, with no adults on board.

The program is funded by generous donations from parents, community members and businesses. "Past grants have allowed us to build our current station as well as purchase the equipment to run the program," said Roberts. Robotic arms, uniforms and patches, high tech security cameras, and hot/cold water coolers are a few examples of items purchased with grant funds and/or donations.

In addition to the direct benefits to students, Liberty space educators have presented at numerous local, state and national conferences, including the prestigious "International Space Station Educator's Conference" in Houston.

"The team is proud to have presented to more than 500 teachers from across the United States," said Roberts. The teachers also work with supporters from NASA.

Teachers involved in the sixth-grade space program are Roberts, James Dewey, Betty Dietzen, Christina Macaya, Rob Mattson, Tiffany Morrisey, Julie Mueller, Marcy Mueller, and Marcy Smith.

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